Taken from our April/May 2019 issue. 

Lynn Bushell

Painted Ladies — Bonnard and his Muses

In the autumn of 1946 the artist Pierre Bonnard, now an old man in his seventies, took a train from his home in the south of France to the annual Paris Salon exhibition. He had made the same journey every year since 1925 when he and his wife Marthe had fled Paris to escape the scandal that engulfed them after the death of Bonnard’s model and mistress Renée Montchaty.

This would be his last attendance at the Salon. He was not in good health and was still in mourning for Marthe, who had been his companion and muse for more than half a century. However, the painting he was exhibiting that year at the Salon would resurrect the scandal all over again and provide his biographers with a teasing question – just how significant to his life and work was the woman who had caused so much upheaval quarter of a century earlier.

We know little about Renée Montchaty, but we can assume she ran to type – a working class girl from a poor family with few opportunities to better herself except through her beauty. Being a model wasn’t that much better than being a prostitute and unless you got promoted from model to muse you would usually find yourself moving on within a few months.

Although beauty was the first prerequisite, on the surface a muse wouldn’t necessarily embody special qualities except for the artist she inspired. Vuillard slept with most of the women he painted including, somewhat recklessly, the wives of two of his dealers, but his muse remained his mother – a corset maker. When Bonnard met Renée he was fifty and she was eighteen, so you could say she had a head start. Renée wasn’t the first model he had slept with, but unlike Vuillard, Bonnard was not a philanderer and it’s doubtful that he expected the affair to spiral in the way it did. He was not a man who craved variety. Most days, he went straight from the studio to his suburban home in St Germain en Laye, where Marthe, their two cats and Juno, the dachshund, would be waiting.

Looking at his paintings, one enters a world where everything is familiar – threadbare carpets, faded throws, a table on which the same plates and cups appear year after year. Although there is often a view through a window onto a garden wild with laburnum and lobelia, Bonnard himself remains safely inside, a slightly voyeuristic presence, revealing itself in a foot or a hand protruding into the room. His world always extends beyond the frame but it doesn’t extend very far. He liked to paint on a canvas loosely tacked to the wall which he would later cut down into individual paintings. His snapshot images were not like Degas’s,  a deliberate design choice, more  a way of letting the world he knew so intimately cushion him on all sides.

By 1917, before Renée came on the scene, Marthe might have felt she was secure in her position. It hadn’t always been the case. When Bonnard met her she was working in a funeral parlour sewing flowers onto wreaths. She’d told him she was sixteen when in reality she was twenty-four and, recognising that he was socially in a class above her, gave her name as Marthe de Méligny whereas it was the much more common Maria Boursin. Their families were never introduced to one another and it would be thirty years before the truth emerged, suggesting that Bonnard either didn’t know or didn’t care that Marthe might not be all that she had made out. Perhaps he understood that this was a way of dealing with her own sense of inadequacy.

Though not conventionally beautiful, what Marthe had in abundance was the kind of stoicism vital to a career that involved standing naked and immobile in cold bathrooms and freezing studios for hours at a time. On more than one occasion Bonnard had pulled her, half dead, from the water after hours of lying in a cold bath.

Over the years she had become as much a fixture as the objects Bonnard used in his still lifes. Nothing in his surroundings was allowed to change and this included her. Ironically, given Marthe’s sensitivity about her age, in the paintings she never grows old. There are pictures of her in her seventies where she still has the hour-glass figure of a woman in her thirties. There’s a tenderness in the pictures and the way Bonnard describes her in paint that suggests he did love Marthe very much, even during the height of his love-affair with Renée.

When, after five years, the affair reached a critical juncture, he responded by having a nervous breakdown. The swirling Kokoschka-like brush-strokes and raw colours of Self-portrait with a Beard, painted at this time, show a man no longer certain of the world or his place in it. He had taken Renée to Rome with the promise that they would be married on their return. We don’t know whether this was his decision or the result of pressure on her part. One can only imagine Marthe’s despair. Approaching fifty, no longer attractive and plagued by psoriasis, it must have seemed to her that her world was disintegrating around her.

There is no record of what took place in Rome that summer. The only painting to come out of it was of two women standing in the foreground of the Piazza del Popolo. One is holding a set of scales. The holiday seems to have ended abruptly. The pair returned to Paris, where Pierre went straight to St Germain en Laye and proposed to Marthe.

They married and three weeks later Renée was dead. Pierre and Marthe, embroiled in a nightmare that seemed to have no end, escaped from Paris and the media-frenzy to the south of France, abandoning the house in Saint Germain for ever. The ‘Villa Bosquet’, just outside Cannes, is where they would remain for the rest of their lives. Isolated amongst the olive groves it was the perfect retreat. The ‘villa’ wasn’t as grand as it sounded, but at least it had a decent bathroom.

Marthe was more in need of one of these than ever. Exacerbated by stress, the skin condition she had always suffered from had intensified to a point where it could only be eased by water. Already famous as ‘the woman in the bath’, she now spent most of her days there. Bonnard reacted by making the bathroom into a second studio. There was no retirement age for Marthe – she went on posing till she dropped.

Pierre Bonnard, Self-portrait with a beard, 1925


Pierre Bonnard, Nu à contre-jour, 1908, oil on canvas, 124.5 x 109 cm © Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
Pierre Bonnard, The Terrace at Vernonnet, 1939, Oil on canvas, 58 1/4 x 76 3/4 in. (148 x 194.9 cm) © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

She’d always been reclusive. In her latter years she had an almost paranoid reluctance to engage with other people. The one event of the year that both continued to attend was the Paris Salon. In 1946, the last year of his life, Bonnard made the journey on his own. Marthe, who had lived far longer than doctors predicted, had finally succumbed to ill health. Bonnard wrote to his friend Matisse: ‘I have sad news. After months of illness, my poor Marthe died of cardiac arrest. We buried her six days ago in the cemetery at Le Cannet. You can imagine my grief and solitude, filled with worry about my life from now on.’

Renée, long dead, was to all intents and purposes, forgotten. Marthe had made sure that any images of her were painted over or destroyed. But with Young Women in the Garden, Bonnard’s last submission to the Salon exhibition, he returned to a painting he had abandoned twenty years earlier and which Marthe no doubt thought had been destroyed along with the others.

At first sight there seems to be only one figure in the painting. Sitting  with her chin on her hand, Renée gazes dreamily and seductively out at the spectator. Bonnard had never been interested in faces, which is why our only knowledge of what Marthe looked like, despite the hundreds of paintings Bonnard did of her, is derived from photographs taken by other people. In most of the paintings her face resembles a currant bun with two dots for the eyes and another for the nose. It’s been suggested that because she had never liked being looked at, this was Bonnard’s way of protecting her identity. When they went for walks he would often carry an umbrella regardless of the weather, for the same reason.

By contrast, Renée’s face is shown in loving detail. She has blond hair and blue eyes and Bonnard gilds the background so that the picture has  the aura of an icon. Were it not for the fact that the title is Young Women in the Garden one might look no further but a search reveals another face in profile in the bottom right hand corner. There, sunk in shadow and gloomily contemplating her rival from behind what looks like a wheel but turns out to be the back of a chair, is Marthe.

Six months later, Bonnard was dead. Young Women in the Garden was his only statement about Renée. Draw from it what you will, one thing seems certain, that to the end Bonnard never fully came to terms with Renée’s tragic death or the conflicting forces that had tormented him thirty years earlier. If Renée had been content to remain a model, we might never  have heard of her. Her ambition to become Bonnard’s muse destroyed her, but it gave her something she could not have hoped for under any other circumstances – immortality.

Words by Lynn Bushell.

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